The first step towards an automation mindset

For many jobs, a “one-off” task quickly becomes a standard, and if that one-off task is labor-intensive, you can end up creating a lot of work for yourself or your coworkers. How do you avoid making a ton of work for yourself that’s probably unnecessary? The answer lies in a mindset change, from “how do I do this?” to “how can this be automated”? After all, if it’s valuable, someone will likely ask you to do it again.

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That mindset is the mindset of the folks who work at companies like Google, folks who focus on algorithmic solutions to problems rather than single-instance uses of people’s time. If you’re not a programmer or developer, however, that can be a difficult mindset to begin using. How do you get started thinking in an algorithmic way?

The easiest trick is one that’s often a joke punchline in tech circles, but can legitimately begin to alter your thinking towards an automation mindset. Every time you face a task, ask yourself if there’s an app for that. For example, I was going to sync up some folders on my Mac. Is there an app for that? There is – it’s actually built into the Mac, a command-line app called rsync. Typing rsync -rtv /sourcedirectory /targetdirectory at the command line (obviously substituting your own directories where indicated) will sync up two folders.

By starting to think of problem solutions in the context of pre-built apps that could solve your problem, you change your thinking from one of labor (how do I do that) to one of automation (someone must have written a piece of software to do that). That begins to make processes more repeatable, more scalable, and more reliable. In the example above, I would no longer need to waste my time or someone else’s time making sure two folders had the same contents. I’d just run that little program as often as needed.

Some things don’t have apps. Some things shouldn’t have apps. But where and when practical and reasonable, look for an app as the first step towards bringing more automation solutions to your work.


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  • johnblue

    stackexchange/stackoverflow offer great leads on solving automation questions:)